The cover of Elina Garanca's latest CD is designed to deceive. Paul Schirnhofer's portrait, with the singer elegantly sporting Cartier drop earrings, casts the Latvian mezzo in a retro light; a latterday Grace Kelly waiting for a nod from Mr Hitchcock, perhaps.
Forget the suspense; in reality, Romantique is a not very successful attempt to catch a twilight world between love and despair. Garanca's overly sedate Mon Coeur s'ouvre a ta voix is an online YouTube tempter (19,945 hits to date) but Saint-Saens' aria is the only familiar piece in a collection of obscure Gounod, Tchaikovsky and Lalo.
D'Amour l'ardente flamme from Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust is woefully lacking in ardour and Romeo's plodding tomb aria from Nicola Vaccai's 1825 Giulietta e Romeo makes one realise why this composer is only remembered today for his vocal studies.
To cap it off, an overly resonant recording does no favours to the valiant efforts of the Filamonica del Teatro Comunale di Bologna under Yves Abel.
I'm perplexed as to why Marie-Nicole Lemieux is presented as a rather cross Papagena on the cover of her latest aria collection, but musically, it's a winner. The Canadian is emphatically contralto rather than mezzo, and you can hear it when she tinges the tragedy of Gluck's Che faro with a soulful darkness.
This aria and a subtly shaded Voi sapete from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro are the only concessions to the mainstream. At the other end of the familiarity scale is a riveting 12-minute lament of Montezuma from a 1755 opera of the same name by Carl Heinrich Graun.
Beautifully rendered, Graun's music may touch a contemporary chord with us, presenting, as it does, the grievances of a deposed first nation.
Frissons come fast and furious. Lemieux positively crackles with fury in a recitative from Gluck's Iphigenie en Aulide and comes up with unerring coloratura in the closing aria from Haydn's Il Ritorno di Tobia.
Best of all are the lesser-known Mozart arias.
One, from La Betulia Liberata, written when the composer was just 15, showcases Lemieux to perfection against the spirited Les Violons du Roy under Bernard Labadie.
Elina Garanca - Romantique (Deutsche Grammophon)
Marie-Nicole Lemieux - Opera Arias (Naive, through Ode Records)
Verdict: Two divas stake their claim on operatic rarities with varying successBy William Dart Email William